Our current pace of change is dizzying, disorienting. Almost three weeks ago, the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California allowed as how it might be a good idea to refrain from shaking hands and intincting (dipping by hand) the bread into the wine at Communion. A few days later, as of the second Sunday of Lent, he required churches to serve only bread and not serve the wine at all. By the third Sunday in Lent, six days ago, all churches in the diocese are locked, and no one is allowed to gather for worship. Within 24 hours of that, the entire Bay Area was put under “Shelter in Place” orders, and none of us are to leave our homes for anything other than absolute necessities. The entire state of California followed a few days later.
As it happened, I had long been scheduled to preach on Lent 2. I couldn’t have known it at the time, but that service was the last time my, or any other congregation in the Diocese, would be able to gather to hear a sermon in person for some time to come. I’m glad I didn’t know it, because who can possibly preach under that amount of pressure? Who can possibly find words that will bring comfort and hope in such times?
I’m not one to wait until the last minute, so I had written my sermon previously, before the COVID-19 news became the only thing people were thinking about. But events in the day or so before that Sunday made it clear that I was going to need to rewrite the sermon to address the current situation directly in some way. People I talked to were full of fear and anxiety, and spoke openly of their mortality.
What does it mean to live an abundant life in the face of death? And how does that change when death seems as though it might be coming soon, either for us or for loved ones?
I began the sermon by describing the comic, now a meme, at the top of this post–the “This is fine” dog, who (if you look at the rest of the complete comic strip) soon melts in the fire he wants to deny.
Nearly all of us have the tendency to want to operate as though everything is fine. We probably need to–otherwise, how would we avoid paralysis? But every one of us will have times in our lives when we can’t help admitting that everything IS NOT fine, that things are on fire around us. This can happen individually, in times of pain or sorrow, or regionally, when there is a natural disaster. But perhaps only once in a lifetime does something come along that compels us to face mortality, suffering, and loss on a global scale.
A few among us still have memories of WWII. Many more of us lived through 9-11 (which wasn’t truly global, but was universal in the U.S.). And now all of us are in the time of COVID-19. A global pandemic, poised to take many, many lives in the near future.
“This is fine” is NOT going to help.
The scripture in the lectionary for the second Sunday of Lent is the famous story in the Gospel of John where Nicodemus comes to Jesus to ask some questions. You can read it here if you would like: https://lectionarypage.net/YearA_RCL/Lent/ALent2_RCL.html
This story contains the famous concept of being “born again” as a way to see the Kingdom of God, as well as the oft-quoted John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” And of course both of those have been used by some Evangelical Christians to browbeat others.
“Are you ready to be ‘born again’?”
“Do you ‘believe’?”
“Do you want to perish, or have everlasting life?”
“Pray this one specific prayer, follow these four spiritual laws, and you’ll be on the right side of all things for all eternity.”
I have religious-abuse PTSD just thinking about it.
As I have written before, the Evangelical expression of the Christian faith often actually privileges certainty. Many who follow in that path are SURE that they KNOW so many things. But faith not only doesn’t require certainty; faith is the opposite of certainty. If I am certain, I don’t actually need any faith at all.
But in a time like the one we are living through, it is tough–impossible?–to be certain of very much. If we are “certain” of anything, it is that those we know and maybe even those we love are likely to suffer, perhaps die, in a pandemic. The economy “certainly” seems to be collapsing. Many of us are “certainly” required to stay inside our homes.
So putting the very limiting “certain” Evangelical interpretations of the Nicodemus story aside, what DOES it actually have to say to us in a time of fear and mortality?
Perhaps more than we might expect.
Nicodemus doesn’t have anything that looks like certainty in the story. He wants something from Jesus, perhaps to understand how the world works, or what might be real about God, or what is the meaning of life. But he was so frightened about what others would think of him that he waited until it was night, and under cover of darkness he slunk in to visit Jesus.
Fear. Anxiety. Uncertainty.
“You must be from God,” Nicodemus says, “or you couldn’t do the things you do.”
Jesus’s reply proves less than helpful. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Poor Nicodemus probes a bit, but only grows more confused.
“What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the spirit is spirit,” Jesus tells him. And “the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”
Nicodemus is not impressed. He complains that what Jesus is saying is impossible. And then . . . except for one brief mention a few chapters later, he disappears from the gospel account until after Jesus is dead. Nicodemus was not able to take advantage of the opportunity Jesus offered him to understand the kingdom of God.
Now I would like to think that in Nicodemus’s place I would have done differently. I would like to think that if I had the chance to ask Jesus about the meaning of life, I would have clung to his words. I would have nodded sagely and said, “Ah. Yes. Born of the Spirit. The wind. Of course.” And then I would have acted in such a way that I had a place in the story, perhaps becoming a disciple and going off to share what I had learned with others.
But if I’m honest, I probably wouldn’t have even been as brave as Nicodemus was in visiting Jesus in the middle of the night. And I probably would have been just as confused by and hesitant to accept the answer to my question. Because if there is one thing that I AM certain about, it is that life can be hard. The world we live in is sometimes frightening. People are messy. And I am just as messy as everyone else. I don’t always know what is “faithful,” what is right.
I have been Nicodemus.
I have had times when I have given in to fear and became paralyzed. And I have had other times when I have gone into denial, and said “This is fine,” and then tried go back to regular life. Neither of these responses ever served me well in the end.
As far as we can tell, Nicodemus also gave in to fear for a time. Perhaps he also took on a “this is fine” attitude. But it also seems that at some point such responses stopped working for him, and he changed. Because he DOES return to the story much later in the Gospel of John. It is after Jesus has been crucified—the most dangerous moment of all for any follower. And THIS is when, seemingly out of nowhere, Nicodemus publically appears, bringing 100 pounds of spices to wrap the body. He is no longer paralyzed by fear or denial. He engages in a public act of great courage and faith.
Somehow he found a way to see the kingdom of God.
The Greek word metanoia offers a description of what seems to have happened for Nicodemus. This word is often translated “repentance,” which shares a root with one of the words from the opening prayer from Lent 2: “penitence.” While we often think of repentance as somehow involving shame and guilt and self-punishment, another way to translate metanoia is “change in habits of mind,” or “change in meaning-making perspective.” This is what seems to have happened for Nicodemus. He changed from seeing things from the perspective of everyday life, where paralyzing fear or complete denial are logical choices. Instead, he began to see things from the perspective of faith, from the perspective of the kingdom of God.
I also have had occasions of metanoia in my life, moments when, just maybe, I have been able to glimpse the kingdom of God. In these times, it isn’t that the difficult things in life go away, or that problems are solved. Instead, what happens is that I become able to put fear, or sorrow, or other hard things, into a new context. My meaning-making perspective shifts. And I realize why Jesus had to say things like “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Because that moment of clarity is very hard to put into words.
If you have ever experienced one of those moments, you will also know–words fail.
My experience of this state isn’t that I find a reason or an explanation for trouble or pain. Instead, it is that I have an encounter with something—some One—outside myself.
In seeing the kingdom of God, I remember that Jesus was fully human, and experienced fear and sorrow and pain of his own—and joy, and love—just as all humans do. Jesus must have experienced sickness. He certainly experienced grief.
He even experienced death.
Yet even knowing that this would be a consequence of the choice to become human, God loved all of creation so much that God became human and accepted all of the troubles of a human life.
This means that even if I don’t know why things are the way they are, I do know that Jesus walks through the hard things right with me, and that he knows what it is to experience and to feel all the parts of being human. Even though I can’t explain why sickness and suffering and death are part of the human condition, I can somehow hold faith that God is holding us, and walks through these paths of sorrow and pain right along side us.
In the 14th century, a young woman in England became so ill that everyone expected she would die. When she miraculously recovered, she told others of what she called her “showings,” things that God had revealed to her in her sickness. That young woman–Julian of Norwich–later wrote:
And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.
In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.
This mystery sits at the center of Christian faith. God made all that is, God loves all that is, and God keeps all that is. Even when it doesn’t look that way.
Julian wrote from personal experiences of great suffering, and in a time when the bubonic plague was a global pandemic. And even so, after her revelation of God and God’s love, she was able, with all confidence, to write her most famous words:
“All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”
Julian had this faith in the midst of fear, confusion, and anxiety. Nicodemus seems to have come to rest in the same faith.
“This is fine”?
Yes. Somehow, yes, it is.